Will movie theaters survive the COVID-19 pandemic? Locally owned cinemas are looking at silver linings

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As local and state leaders start to talk about what society may look like in the aftermath of novel coronavirus, it's becoming increasingly clear the road back to normalcy will be a long one.

For some, it will be longer than others. Movie theaters are reckoning with the idea they may not see a packed house for a year or longer until a vaccine is developed or we reach herd immunity, whichever comes first.

And for a business model that's predicated on putting a lot of people in one room fairly close together, that's not a particularly sunny forecast.

"Being in a cinema space, even when shelter-in-place restrictions are lessened, the chances of the Roxie opening... we have 234 seats that are close together," says Roxie Theater Executive Director Lex Sloan. "We're imagining that's going to be some time away."

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Nevertheless, local theaters seem to be finding silver linings.

General Manager J Moses Ceaser admitted the New Parkway Theater in Uptown Oakland is losing about $180,000 in revenue every month they're closed. Still, he says, "We will absolutely survive."

They'll not only survive, Ceaser predicts, "We're a great place already, but I think we'll be a better place."

Similarly, Sloan sounds eternally optimistic. Instead of dwelling on the loss of revenue (an estimated $100,000 to $150,000 a month, she says), she focuses on the ways the theater is able to serve the community right now. No moviegoers were using the bathrooms' toilet paper or eating the concession candy, so the Roxie put together gift packages for homeless outreach teams.

The iconic nonprofit theater in San Franicsco's Mission District closed its doors a few days before shelter-in-place orders made going dark mandatory. Since then, Sloan says the theater has been taking advantage of the absolute lack of customers to do long-needed accessibility upgrades.

"Being dark gives us an opportunity to do those upgrades, which is this little weird blessing in disguise," she says.

Sloan says the theater has a plan to weather the storm, even if they aren't able to fully operate for months or even a year. But she is more worried about the ripple effects the pandemic is having on the greater arts community. The Roxie also acts as a venue for several local film festivals, all of which have been canceled.

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"It's scary for all arts organizations out there. I worry about the film festivals that are smaller and if they will be able to come back. I worry about the house staff that's been laid off... it's those things that are really challenging."

At the New Parkway, Ceaser said the added unemployment benefits and stimulus packages passed by Congress made it easier to temporarily let staff go, knowing they'd have some source of income for the time being. For some, he says it's the first time they've had any sort of "paid time off."

The landlords for both cinemas have cut rent in half, making it easier to stay afloat in the notoriously expensive Bay Area.

To make ends meet, the Roxie has opened a virtual cinema, where patrons can buy tickets to screen movies and attend Q&A sessions, and has been selling gift cards and merchandise online. The New Parkway is not only a theater, but also a restaurant, and they've started up a food crate delivery program.

As a second run theater, the Parkway doesn't usually screen movies until weeks or months after they're first released. Since very few movies are being released during the pandemic, they might not have any new blockbusters to show until the fall. They're planning theme weeks and grand reopening festivities to draw people in once it's safe.

And though the movie theater business has been one of the hardest hit in this pandemic, these local theaters say their independent status isn't a weakness; being locally owned and operated fixtures in their communities has been a saving grace.

"I am more hopeful about the long-term viability of the New Parkway now than I was two months ago. And I know that sounds like a ridiculous thing," says Ceaser. "When we announced our closure, in the first 48 hours we sold $10,000 in gift cards. Then we rolled out our meal program and it's been sold out every time we've done it. We did a Kickstarter for $25,000 and we did $50,000.

"It's a reminder to businesses that if you have a community-based business, and if you engage your patronage, and if they feel valued, they will support you."

Both theaters can't wait until they can welcome those members of the community back into their seats.

"As soon as it's safe to be open, as soon as we're able to reopen, we're going to fire up our neon marquee and everybody is going to be out front cheering. I'm living for that moment. I think we're all living for that moment," says Sloan. "I can't wait for us to pack the theater and for people to be able to be able to laugh together and cry together and feel things together, because we have to make do with this virtual world, but there's really nothing like watching a movie together in a cinema."

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